I was reading Italian Fever, author Valerie Martin's delicious little ghost story of a novel set in Tuscany, and I was getting hungry. Perhaps this isn't surprising, given that I'm starving all the time these days. But I was stirred by Martin's exaltations over the fare her protagonist Lucy was eating: cinghiale, or stewed wild boar, which is a regional specialty, along with a multitude of other "choices, a dish of potatoes and porcini mushrooms, shrimp, the big ones, mazzancolle, grilled, followed by another of cicoria." The writing sounds simple, barely even descriptive, yet the restraint the author demonstrates perfectly equals this type of cuisine, which is big and flavorful without being overblown.
So there I was, salivating and contemplating the contents of my freezer: frozen baby peas, low-fat vanilla ice cream, leftover hamburger buns from Memorial Day. Barely appetizing for an American let alone a suddenly wannabe Tuscan. Fortunately, as it often does, a solution presented itself. On my kitchen table lay a copy of the new cookbook I had just received in the mail, Simply Tuscan: Recipes for a Well-Lived Life by Pino Luongo, the proprietor of Coco Pazzo Café located in the Shops at Sunset Place. A light bulb glimmered to life grudgingly: I would cook.
This answer was not as obvious as it seems. I have just moved into a new house, where an oven had never been installed. I'm in the midst of unpacking and have not yet located my small appliances, food processor, blender, et al. And I have a two-year-old who insists on helping ("Make dinner! Make dinner! Make dinner!") but who won't eat anything I cook unless it's hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, or rice and beans. Most likely I wasn't up to the challenge of adapting complicated recipes, especially with a toddler clinging to my legs the way cooked spaghetti hugs a wall.
Then I leafed through the cookbook. A hardcover edition from Doubleday, it features sepia-tone pages and deliberately grainy, four-color photography. The font of the text and recipes is Ye Olde Manual Typewriter, complete with the inconsistencies in the distribution of ink a typewriter would apply. Chapters are preceded by pastoral poems about Tuscany, and the Italian and translated versions are published side by side. Then there are Luongo's exhortations in his many essays sprinkled throughout the book (which seem to be ghostwritten because "Text by Andrew Friedman" is acknowledged on a flyleaf along with the photographer, illustrator, and recipe tester). Altogether the message is clear: Simply Tuscan wants us to stop and smell the garlic, and the only way, apparently, is by cooking up a huge, impromptu Tuscan feast.
Some of the recipes can be intimidating. Pasta dishes like the "butternut squash cappellacci" require that the cook make both the pasta and the filling, not to mention the brown butter-nutmeg sauce. Ingredients can be daunting: Where, after all, does one find wild boar these days for the "sweet and sour wild boar with chestnut gnocchi?" (In Tuscany wild boars still threaten the grapevines in some areas. Here in Miami we're lucky if we spot a squirrel or two in our back yards.) And because the recipes are arranged in seasonal and holiday menus, cooking an entire menu can be a two-day task. Plus, you need to invite lots of guests to ingest the fare, as most of the individual recipes are designed for anywhere from six to fifteen people.
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That said, Luongo includes many recipes for the novice or lazy cook, and occasionally he even provides directions for cooking dried pasta. Being the latter I naturally made the dish that calls for dried fusilli mixed with grapefruit sections and sautéed swordfish; a more perfect recipe for South Floridians was probably never written (although for the record, I exchanged grouper for the endangered swordfish). He also gives substitutions for hard-to-find ingredients -- for instance, lamb can be used instead of wild boar -- plus hints on where to find foodstuffs like mostardo di frutta, or mustard fruits ("available at specialty stores or Italian markets"). In fact Luongo (or Friedman) writes in the foreword: "You [the reader] would actually be doing me a great disservice by following the book to the letter. Everything that's here is meant to be adapted freely, in the simplest way possible, by you in your home."
Who am I not to take the chef at his word? Tropical heat is upon us, so I immediately flipped to the summer menus, choosing a dish from each rather than cooking one menu straight through. Since I'm an ovenless wonder, I also chose with an eye towards outdoor grilling, figuring I could avoid heating up the house. That strategy worked quite well, with a bonus: I prepped the "grilled scallops wrapped in radicchio and pancetta" and the "grilled pork ribs, Florentine style," but my husband was responsible for the actual cooking. Indeed both recipes were shockingly quick to prepare, since ingredients were minimal -- the sea scallops, for example, were seasoned only with olive oil, pepper, and salt -- and cooking steps were few. This is, no doubt, quintessential Tuscan dining: The cook isn't too exhausted to enjoy his/her own food. And although I had my doubts about the ribs (most rib recipes require the baby backs to be parboiled or baked first to ensure tenderness) these racks yielded crisp, succulent meat after eight minutes per side on the grill. I suspect the sea salt with which they were sprinkled tenderized them, a good trick to remember in the future.
One feature I truly admire about this book, besides its user-friendliness, is the care with which Luongo takes to address the entire population. One menu is called "A Dinner Date for Two Prepared by Him," which translates in my house to "Sorry, honey, no more excuses." Another takes intimacy a step further with "First Dinner with the In-Laws." Fledgling male cooks are advised to make zucchini soup served with zucchini chips in order to "prove you're clever in the kitchen ... and using the zucchini two ways will demonstrate that you're not wasteful, something that will be reassuring to her parents." Of course there's a caveat: "Even if they don't love you, they'll go home impressed with your talent and knowing that their daughter will be well fed for the rest of her life." And surely that's every mother's wish for her children.
Speaking of kids, many menus take the wee ankle-biters into account, like the "Dinner for Children and Their Friends." I made a hot pudding of "pastina [tiny star-shaped pasta] with milk and eggs" for the babies at the table, and while my picky daughter naturally preferred her hot dog, the fourteen-month-old sitting next to her loved it. Of course, truly lazy cooks can always take the kids -- and the shortcut -- to dine at Coco Pazzo. You don't get the joy of preparing the food yourself, but cleanup's sure a lot easier.